Paul Ryan, the smooth-if-not-always-substantive congressman who is the darling of the DC talk shows, the House Budget Committee chair whom congressional leaders had respond to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, the prime pitchman for Wall Street lobbying agenda on everything from privatization of Social Security to tax cuts for the rich, has taken his show on the road.
Ryan may have thought that his carefully crafted sales pitch for pulverizing Medicare would play in Paddock Lake and Milton and Kenosha—Wisconsin towns where the congressman expected to be greeted with cheers for a conquering hero from inside the Beltway.
The halls have been packed to capacity. Hundreds of Ryan’s constituents have been turned away from events that reached capacity long before their starting time. But the crowds that did get into the sessions have not come to hail their congressman as an American Idol.
Outside the cloistered confines of the Capitol Hill, and the few blocks of southern Manhattan where he is a hero, Ryan is bombing.
When Ryan claimed that he was serious about balancing the budget, someone in the crowd at the House Budget Committee chair’s town hall meeting in the working-class city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, shouted: “That’s not what the Congressional Budget Office says.” And the room erupted with cheers for the correction of the congressman’s attempted deception.
When Ryan claimed his Republican budget plan would save Medicare and Medicaid, the packed room erupted with shouts of “Liar!”
When Ryan claimed that he didn’t want to replace Medicare with a voucher system but rather with “choices,” a woman piped up: “You can call it what you want, but don’t tell us that it’s still Medicare.”
When Ryan claimed that taxes needed to be cut for corporations and the wealthy in order to create jobs, he was greeted with a collective groan from hundreds of workers in a town that just lost a major auto factory. One man yelled: “We’ve been cutting their taxes for thirty years and what did it get us? Outsourcing and layoff notices.”
When Ryan claimed he couldn’t impose serious cuts on Pentagon spending because troops were in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crowd started chanting: “Bring them home!”
The congressman was spinning out what were supposed to be sure-fire applause lines. But they fell flat.
Like a rock star who used to “have it” but can no longer get his groove on, the congressman kept looking for something that would work. He tried humor, but no one was amused. (Think Spinal Tap, the “mockumentary” where the guitarist in a failing band tries to rock harder by turning his amplifier volume “up to 11.”) Ryan tried audio-visual aids—flashing charts from his friends at the Heritage Foundation on a big screen—until people in the crowd shouted to him that they did not come for a picture show. He tried partisanship, suggesting the President Obama wasn’t taking budget issues seriously. He tried pandering, pointing to crews from national television networks and saying: “Let’s show them that Wisconsinites can be cordial to one another.”